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If we think of Austrian animation cinema, particularly significant is artist Stefan Stratil’s statement “Austria is a nation of animation films without animation films”. In short: of all possible film genres, animation is the least explored in Austria today. At least apparently.

Classic and experimental

If few will remember the image of a lively old man – Heinz Hanus, one of the pioneers of Austrian cinema – nostalgically reminiscing about the days when Astoria Film, one of Austria’s first film production companies, was located on Marchfeldstrasse in Vienna’s 20th district, even fewer will remember this production company. Active from 1918 to 1923, Astoria Film – remembered by Hanus in the documentary Heinz Hanus, directed in 1969 by Helmut Pfandler – differed, in fact, from the rest of the Austrian production companies of the time, as it also focused on animated films. And if, nowadays, Austrian animation cinema is considered to be very weak and lacking in good films, a great deal of attention has in fact been paid to it since the origins of cinema.

Thus, in addition to Heinz Hanus himself, Astoria film also included his brother Emmerich, its founders – Hans Otto Löwenstein and Leo Fuchs – the caricaturist Ladislaus Tusyński and the cartoonist Peter Eng. Particularly prolific, this production company used to play with mixing drawings with live action scenes, making animated films such as Zwerg Nase (directed in 1921 by Heinz Hanus and Ladislaus Tusyński), Das Weib des Irren (also directed by them in 1921), Gevatter Tod (directed by Hanus, 1922) and, finally, Amaranta and Jagd nach dem Kopf (both directed by Tusyński in 1922).

But what was the fate of Austrian animation cinema after Astoria Film sadly and inevitably had to close down?

Austria was in fact once described by artist Stefan Stratil as “a nation of animated films without animated films”. What, however, does this concept mean? In a few words: of all possible film genres, animation is currently the least popular in Austria, despite the previous production of interesting films. At least apparently.

With the exception of a small production company such as Cinecartoon (which has produced several animated series exclusively for children), there are no specialised animation film companies today to provide training for a sufficient number of animators. As a result, Austrian animation cinema is often the great absentee at dedicated film festivals such as Annecy, Zagreb or Hiroshima.

Things change significantly, however, if one refers to the less conventional animation cinema, the experimental animation cinema. In this field, Austria can in fact boast a decades-long tradition. If, in fact, film directors like Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka already in the early 1950s enjoyed inserting interesting stop-motion animation inserts into their works – culminating in the so-called formal radicalism of the short film Arnulf Rainer, directed by Kubelka in 1960 – particularly noteworthy in the field of Austrian animation cinema is the painter Maria Lassnig, who even founded a small production company in New York in the 1970s to make highly experimental animation films using her own paintings.

Thus, from these interesting pioneering experiments, a whole generation of directors and artists, used to produce generally low-budget films, most often produced by ASIFA and distributed at international festivals by Sixpackfilm, was soon born. If we add to all this the birth of the small production company Amour Fou – usually particularly open to the discovery of new languages in the field of cinema – Austrian animated cinema finally seems to be carving out its own – albeit very small – space within the world film scene.

This is in fact a very rich and highly varied sector, in which – in addition to the important aforementioned artists – filmmakers like Mara Mattuschka (Ball-Head, 1985), Bady Minck (The Man with modern Nerves, 1988), Nana Swiczinsky (Wieder Holung, 1997), Stefan Stratil (I’m a Star!, 2002), Peter Tscherkassky (Outer Space, 1999) and Virgil Widrich (Copy Shop, 2001) are the main protagonists. In short, a lot going on in terms of an interesting and frequent mixing of Austrian works with foreign productions.

Yet, despite everything, this is still a particularly elite sector. If, in fact, Austrian animation cinema today boasts numerous interesting works, this continues to be relegated almost exclusively to occasions such as film festivals or temporary exhibitions. This branch, therefore, still seems almost invisible to most. That’ s a pity. In fact, it would only take a pinch of curiosity to discover how extremely alive and pulsating it actually is today.

Info: the website of the ASIFA; the website of Kurt Kren; the website of Maria Lassnig; the website of the Amour Fou Film
In photo: frame from “Arnulf Rainer” (Peter Kubelka, 1960)